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Randy Newman’s American Monsters

For 50 years, Randy Newman has been the voice of miscreants, buffoons, slave traders, circus barkers, racists, sweethearts, Pixar heroes, God, the Devil, and, sometimes, even himself. His songs reflect the past half century of America better than anyone in the pop canon, for better and worse.

Randy loved Ripple. As a teenager, the cross-eyed, bespectacled boy would down a batch of the fortified wine and take a ride in a pal’s car through the Palisades and down Pacific Coast Highway. He couldn’t see well, or straight. And he didn’t have much else to do. For most teens in Eisenhower’s America, this would be considered a joyride. But "joy" was not an operative phrase in Randy Newman’s vocabulary. Ripple led to ruin.

"When I used to drink, even in high school and stuff, I always headed for oblivion, you know?" Newman said in 1972. "I remember once, I drank six bottles of Ripple, and the next thing I remember — I wasn’t driving — I got in this big wreck."

By 28, an oft-obliterated Newman had been in a dozen crashes. He’d broken his nose, smashed up his hands, and suffered a slipped disk in his back. The wrecks happened so often, they’d pile up.

"I was going to the hospital to get checked on the slipped disk," he said, "and a guy hit me from behind."

Newman eventually gave up Ripple. But soaked or sober, the singer-songwriter-composer, now 73, has always looked a bit mangled, bent over his piano like an old crone stirring a cauldron. And like his smashups, his songs have always had a queasy poetry to them, infusing a Mark Twainish vision of the country and its lousiest inhabitants into his songs, set against the elegant catalog of a century’s worth of popular music. In time, he became the Bard of Barbs, a master of the sick joke.

And in that time, his crooked characters have belittled little people ("Short People"), pitched slave traders as the first advertising men ("Sail Away"), pitied the working man ("Mr. President") and all of humanity ("God’s Song") with equal measure. Though never a superstar, Newman has been a persistently successful and routinely controversial figure, particularly for assuming the point of view (and hateful rhetoric) of a racist Southerner in his song "Rednecks." "Short People," a no. 2 pop hit in 1978, was protested by people who thought it a serious dismissal of, well, short people. (It wasn’t.) As recently as 2008, Newman tempted outcry with his song "Korean Parents" for feeding stereotypes of Asian American exceptionalism. Once again citing claims of exoticizing or otherizing broad swathes of society, Newman was either making a sham of a mockery, or simply making a mess for himself. But he is consistent. The final song on his first album, recorded 50 years ago, is called "Davy the Fat Boy" — it’s told from the perspective of Davy’s ostensible best friend, who shows him off like an attraction in a freak show. ("Davy the fat boy, isn’t he round? What do he weigh, folks?") Drawing from Dixieland jazz, Western swing, and ripping country rock, these songs are deceptively chummy. But Newman’s characters seem mean because sometimes — usually — they are.

Randy Newman is an atheist, a fantasist, and a miserablist. Did I mention he’s hilarious? He wrote the sex-obsessed "Suzanne" as a riposte to Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name, just to take the piss out of the Canadian laureate of languor. When he was a down-and-out songwriter, he wrote "Lonely at the Top" for Frank Sinatra, who passed. (Newman later recorded it himself, live at New York’s the Bitter End, in front of about four people for a live album.) On his early-’80s chestnut "I Love L.A." he makes a compelling gallows-in-the-sunshine case for the city that amounts to "L.A. is amazing; I hate it here." It is journalism.

Newman is a contradiction and a quandary — his songs have a slack specificity and his subjects a damaged view of life. He’s hard, funny, goofy, interior, complicated, and dumb. His voice, the caterwaul of an anthropomorphized moose with access to a full set of Perry Como records, is the perfect vessel for these schmucks and slimeballs. He says he’s ripping off Fats Domino, though it sounds more like Fats Domino if someone held his nose for the duration of "Blueberry Hill." Newman is one of the most covered artists of recent times — Norah Jones, Joe Cocker, Etta James, Three Dog Night, Nina Simone, Bette Midler, and Ringo Starr have all taken a crack — but his songs have rarely worked properly in the voices of others. It’s his croak that sells the story. He has a way of winking between octaves.

But Newman is not all mooselike moan and human monstrosity. Some of his songs ache with a sentimentality that’ll make you squint. "Burn On" chronicles the raging fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1969. "Real Emotional Girl" is an old-fashioned heartbreaker. He’s written love songs and memos to his children and mounds of sweetness, too. He penned the chest-clutching ballad "Living Without You," which was covered by his friend Harry Nilsson. He closed his 1999 album with a song called "I Want Everyone to Like Me." Randy Newman is vulnerable, sometimes.

But what makes Newman matter is also the thing that makes him a difficult figure to contend with — he conjures the disreputable or disgusting idea and he flaunts it. Fifty years ago, this was sometimes misunderstood. Today, he might seem malicious or insensitive. He’s used the N-word on two different songs, as storytelling devices and acts of fealty to his characters. "Political Science" is about blowing up other countries because they don’t like America. ("Let’s drop the big one and see what happens.") "If You Need Oil" is a porno set at a gas station. His 1971 song "Last Night I Had a Dream" could be interpreted as a kind of jubilant gang-rape fantasy.

"More of my songs are intended to be funny than almost anyone else, outside of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic," he said in 2003. "Sometimes maybe it cheers me up a bit. Yeah, I’ve got a distance from it. Sometimes what I’m writing is more important to me than the rest of my life. It’s more important to me that I’m writing well than anything else."

Newman has been publicly rehabilitated and thrust back into modest controversy several times in his career, but he has never buckled in his approach — cheerily dissatisfied, suspicious of con artists, and just as comfortable playing the hangman as the hanged man. Who better to be writing songs about this country in 2017?

Newman is now an owlish grand old man of pop, feted with Academy Awards, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a firm place in the American musical canon. But he is still writing songs about twisted, foolish people and their bad ideas. Sometimes they’re even him. His 11th and latest album of original songs, Dark Matter, is his first in nine years, continuing a trend of long stretches between proper records. Dotted between those breaks he has become one of the foremost film composers of the past 20 years, closely tied to the earnest, heartstring-manipulating Pixar oeuvre. To many, Randy Newman is NPR cannon fodder for Seth MacFarlane. But Newman is a messiah for the misanthrope first and foremost, a chronicler of the fucked. The first song on Dark Matter, "The Great Debate," is an eight-minute gospel dialogue about the meaning of existence. It ends with an exultant exclamation: "Someone is watchin’ me!" This from a man who does not believe in God.

In Newman’s songs, we can see an American history with all its luminescence and hope, but mostly its pain and betrayal. Newman investigates the skeletons in our closets, the gunk between our toes, the hate that drives us to make bad choices. And sometimes he tells us how to be good friends. These are his songs, 13 of them that tell his story.

1962: The Fleetwoods, "They Tell Me It’s Summer"

Nearly every profile of Newman in the back half of the 20th century presents a bored malcontent unafraid to speak freely about his contemporaries. ("I don’t care about Yoko; it has no effect on what I think of Lennon’s songs," he said in 1972. "She’s tough, boy. And dumb, really dumb.") In these features, he is shown to be brilliant, frustrating, and oblique, the product of a privileged West Los Angeles upbringing, raised by a well-to-do but angry doctor father and Southern Belle homemaker mother. Save the summers spent in New Orleans with mom, his childhood, we are told, was not happy. His crossed eyes and difficulties with girls are made an originating point of his artistry. A real nerd born high. He comes from a magnificently talented family, with three uncles who worked as composers for Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s, including Alfred Newman, winner of nine Academy Awards and arguably the greatest film composer ever. The Newman family is a big deal, worthy of chronicle in legacy-obsessed Vanity Fair.

But Newman was often portrayed as a homebound, TV-watching curmudgeon struggling to get in the studio, if only at the constant encouragement of his lifelong friend, coconspirator, and producer Lenny Waronker (Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Elliott Smith). Newman and Waronker have built one of the essential partnerships of American music, and they are the product of a very Los Angeles edition of Nepotism Done Good. With Newman’s familial industry connections and Waronker being the son of the founder and chairman of Liberty Records, Newman began writing songs for money before he’d turned 18. "He was a lonely guy, no girlfriends, was hard to get through to, and he’d work so hard on those songs," his brother Alan said in 1979. "But then he’d get terrible writing blocks and couldn’t ever satisfy himself."

In 1962, Newman worked alongside luminary hit factory songwriters like Carole King and Gerry Goffin at Metric Music (which was owned by Liberty), paid 50 bucks a month to crank out pop tunes for hire. "Pretty pedestrian," he said of his work during this period. "Love songs. I was really trying to … Not trying to be Carole King, but trying to be as good as she was. And trying to write follow-ups for people like Bobby Vee and Brenda Lee and the Shirelles, but never succeeding in getting a record. The early stuff is somewhat interesting musically. It would indicate that the person would have some talent for music."

At 19, he recorded his first record, "Golden Gridiron Boy" for Pat Boone. It was a schlocky teeny-bopper anthem told from the perspective of the marching band dork who doesn’t end up with the girl. The same year, he sold "They Tell Me It’s Summer" to the lily-white doo wop trio the Fleetwoods. It’s nice. Which might be the first and last time anyone said such a thing about a Newman composition. It doesn’t exhibit the cleverness of his best songs, but the melancholy, dirt-kicking skepticism is there in shades: "They tell me it’s summer / But I know it’s a lie." By 1965, he’d gotten the attention of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Jerry Butler, Gene Pitney, and Cilla Black covered his songs. In a short span, Randy found himself a long way from Ripple Road.

1968: "The Beehive State"

Then the songs changed — from formulaic confections to something different, dour, and strange. And it worked. In 1966, Judy Collins covered his "I Think It’s Going to Rain Today" on an album that also featured songs made famous by Lennon-McCartney, Bob Dylan, Cohen, and Jacques Brel. A year later, Van Dyke Parks, fresh off a stretch composing with Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys’ Smile sessions, agreed to produce Newman’s self-titled debut. It’s a grandiloquent, orchestral pop masterpiece lacquered in the sounds of an old, weird America. Like Cole Porter on Quaaludes. It flopped, but something had taken hold. Rolling Stone later wrote, "His lyrics include none of the fuzzy bullshit symbolism that so often passes for rock poetry these days." Dylan and McCartney took notice.

Over the years, Newman has said the same thing about this album over and over: "It’s like I’d never heard the Rolling Stones." As if that mattered. Newman’s relationship to commercial success seemed to torture him in the early days of his career as a performer. But Randy Newman is a mind-blowing piece of work, 11 castrating songs about outcasts and sad boys, clocking in at less than 30 minutes. "I Think He’s Hiding" is a moaning wail for a God that isn’t coming. "Laughing Boy" is the da-da-da-ing of a maniac. "The Beehive State" has long been my single favorite Newman song, one of the most perceptive, subtlest pieces ever written about American politics. In two brief chapters, the Senate is addressed by a speaker, who introduces, in the first verse, a delegate from Kansas, and in the second verse, a delegate from Utah, "our friendly Beehive State." I hear a song about petty desire, horse-trading, small towns, red states, and the fickle nature of negotiation in a broken legislative system.

"How can we help you, Utah?" the speaker asks in the second stanza. "How can we make you great?"

"We’ve got to irrigate our desert," the representative says. "We’ve got to get some things to grow. We’ve got to tell this country about Utah. ’Cause nobody seems to know."

If recent weeks have been any indication, Newman’s view of the ass-covering demonstrations in Congress have aged well. How can we make you great? has a ring to it.

1970: Three Dog Night, "Mama Told Me (Not to Come)"

Stymied by the failure of Randy Newman, Newman relented and adopted a traditional rock sound for 1970’s 12 Songs, a Southern-inflected album with a spotlight on the note-bending slide-guitar playing of Ry Cooder. The songs are also a bit kinkier than his magisterial debut. "Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield" sounds as if it were recorded on the set of Deliverance, with its nihilistic, simmering madness. But the album’s legacy is "Mama Told Me Not to Come," which, against Newman’s advice, was later recorded by the rollicking, chart-topping rock quintet Three Dog Night. Newman’s version is creaky and a little ornery. Three Dog Night’s is an explosive ’70s rock blockbuster, with a ripcord guitar solo, a blow-whistle bridge, and a rambunctious keyboard melody that eventually became one of the sonic touchstones of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to ’70s excess, Boogie Nights. What is the song about? Well, listen to the chorus: "Mama told me not to come. That ain’t the way to have fun, son. That ain’t the way to have fun, no."

"Fucking," Newman once said when asked what one of his songs was about. "A lot of tunes in the guise of romanticism," he said later, "have mainly fucking behind them."

You get the idea that sex has been a powerful, unsurprising object of fascination for Newman.

"I really didn’t have many dates," he said in a different interview years later. "I was strange looking — and I was a bad driver. I’d be trying to get my arm around a girl who didn’t want to know about it while I drove the family car up on some sidewalk. We went to the movies, there was some parking at night, but I always did bad. They were mostly girls I liked who didn’t like me; it was tough."

1971: "Last Night I Had a Dream" (Live)

Despite his growing reputation as a songwriter of great accomplishment, Newman’s 12 Songs still bombed. It didn’t even chart. Dejected, Randy Newman was reluctant to record another album. Waronker, ever the cajoler, couldn’t get him in the studio. A fatalist by nature, he found reasons to stay home. "He’s not your normal, everyday artist who likes to groove around in the studio," Waronker said in 1972. "It took him a year to do the last album. Half of the time was spent in cancellations and crap-outs, you know, a lot of midnight calls: ‘Jesus, this is shit. Can we cancel?’"

He was, at best, a cult artist. But being talked into performing a handful of live dates in L.A. and New York bore something useful for his record company, Warner Bros., and Newman himself.

Randy Newman/Live does not have many forbears. It’s a kind of MTV Unplugged before its time, with a solo Newman ripping through songs on his piano, some unreleased, before small audiences at the Bitter End. For decades, the only version of the piano-pounding "Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong" could be found on this album. I believe that it’s about not knowing how to masturbate, or screw. ("Just don’t move me the way that it should," Newman howls.) This is an odd concert album.

At one point, a voice, likely Waronker’s, calls out, "A dream I had last night, Randy." Newman, who’s been taking requests, accepts this one. This bewitching, confusing song — which appears near the top of the most-played list in my iTunes library — begins with a man recounting a dark dream ("I saw a vampire, I saw a ghost / Everybody scared me, you scared me the most!"). Then the monsters arrive. The dreamer turns the tables, making his audience the victim in his fantasy. Repeated listens reveal that something increasingly sinister is afoot. Marc Maron recently asked Newman about this most obscure song on an episode of his WTF podcast, and Newman didn’t seem terribly flustered when Maron implied that something awful is happening in the margins.

Newman closes his live album with an early performance of "Lonely at the Top," muttering to a small crowd about grandeur at the end of a long night and a longer decade, his musical future fully in doubt. All he had to look forward to was everything.

1972: "Sail Away"

This is a song upon which careers are made. Returning to the orchestral sound of his debut, Newman writes in the voice of a white man standing in Africa, gently preaching about the great promise of a new country: "In America, you get food to eat / Won’t have to run through the jungle / And scuff up your feet / You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day / It’s great to be an American."

It’s hard to know if a song like "Sail Away" is brave, bold, beautiful, callous, or crucial. I think of it whenever our outrage cycle begins churning. What it does is lift the sheet from a chapter of history and, in two minutes and 53 seconds, put truth to the lie of a country. The song is gorgeously composed, its lyrics a forced juxtaposition to an elegant score that rises and swells like the sails on the slave trader’s ships. It is triumphant, and awful. Like America.

"To me, someone who writes really good songs is Randy Newman," Bob Dylan said in 1991. "There’s a lot of people who write good songs. As songs. Now Randy might not go out on stage and knock you out, or knock your socks off. And he’s not going to get people thrilled in the front row. He ain’t gonna do that. But he’s gonna write a better song than most people who can do it. You know, he’s got that down to an art. Now Randy knows music. He knows music. But it doesn’t get any better than ‘Louisiana’ or [‘Sail Away’]. It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s like a classically heroic anthem theme. He did it. There’s quite a few people who did it. Not that many people in Randy’s class."

But at the time, Newman had a hard time accepting praise for the song. "I don’t know, it’s thin, awful thin," he reportedly sulked during the recording. Today, "Sail Away" and Sail Away are considered by many to be Newman’s finest hour, the sound of a writer cycling through styles, characters, tones, and discovering a new metonym for his work: genius.

1974: "Rednecks"

"We talk real funny down here." It’s possible for a character to be self-aware and unforgivable. The protagonist of "Rednecks," the opening number of Good Old Boys, Newman’s song cycle about the American South, is a particular kind of archetype, a preening lout. He’s a racist proudly extolling pride about his heritage and his prejudice. With a jaunty, strolling brass band set against the proclamations of this happily churlish figure, Newman inhabits a figure with no empathy and loads of self-satisfaction. "We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks! / We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground / We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks / We’re keepin’ the niggers down" goes the chorus. He sings it over and over again, like a taunt or a dare.

It still raises grumbles from crowds when Newman performs, the bracing quality of hearing that word sung in full voice. "Randy hates it when people don’t realize he has created an insensitive persona on record to serve as a dramatic device," his brother Alan told Rolling Stone in 1979. "The guy in ‘Rednecks’ on Good Old Boys is not somebody he likes. Randy’s always considered civil rights and racism our most important domestic issues, but he’s also asking for compassion for bigots in the song."

When I saw him at New York’s Town Hall in 2011, you could hear the rattling pearls being clutched. Critics have always struggled with the way audiences receive him. Newman sings the song despite 40-plus years of explaining its meaning and intent. They’re still asking about it. Just last month, he had this thoughtful exchange with David Marchese of New York magazine:

There is something paradoxical about Good Old Boys, then his biggest hit to date, that seeks understanding and sincerity in the experience of people who have little for others. The other tracks on the album — the gentle love song "Marie" and the Huey Long tribute/reflection "Kingfish" — feel like odes to a South that Newman’s mother inhabited, a delicate, dramatic place devised around manners even if their practice is inconsistent. "Guilty" is a lament for all times, opening like this: "Yes, baby, I’ve been drinking." These are people you know, not monsters. "Louisiana 1927" remembers the flooding in the state that was unmanaged by uncaring government officials, a song that eerily predicted a similar set of circumstances more than 30 years later. When Hurricane Katrina struck, the song’s incantatory chorus became a mantra for New Orleanians: "Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away." An album about marginalizing people somehow birthed an anthem for the suffering masses.

1977: "Short People"

This is the catchiest Randy Newman song, his biggest hit, a novelty record, an insensitive shot, a cute bit of parody, and a lasting legacy. Newman knows his obituary will begin with something along the lines of "Randy Newman, the composer of the hit song ‘Short People,’ has died." It’s an oddly small and silly subject of satire after the majestic reach of Good Old Boys — perhaps in some ways it was a reaction to the furor that that album had created. In that case, it failed — the song was a massive success — and led to many people (none of whom understood the song) boycotting Newman and his music. Ho-hum, a satirist’s work is never done. "Ohhh, fuck. Why don’t they leave me alone!" Newman groused about the protesters in 1979, before slyly adding, "Maybe I was right about the little pukes all along."

By the time of "Short People," Newman had settled into a career as a successful singer-songwriter, and with a hit song, as a known quantity. His marriage to Roswitha Schmale, a German woman he wooed in the ’60s, ultimately gave them three boys. Newman, 34, was a star and a family man and an artist applying more gentility in his work. Songs like "Baltimore" and "In Germany Before the War" tip toward the composing and obsession with historical storytelling that would come to define a portion of his career. The album-making had become easier, the songs out with more fluidity. He was no longer a tortured artist. "Short People" was a greasy stunt, and an effective one.

1981: "Main Title," From ‘Ragtime’

After the ill-received, dyspeptic Born Again, which found Newman in a suit at a desk wearing Kiss makeup on the album’s cover, he embraced his family legacy. Newman composed the score for Milos Forman’s film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime. It is the first of 23 he has written. If ever a George Gershwin and Cole Porter obsessive could go to work, it was with this material. This is stately business, a score like this, as is his booming, kaleidoscopic, Aaron Coplandesque work for 1984’s The Natural — remember the soaring, electronic bombast as Robert Redford’s character shatters the night lights high above the field with a titanic home run.

Newman stuck with period pieces for a time before attempting a slightly more somber, piano-led set for the drama Awakenings and the sanguine, plainspoken charms of his songs for Ron Howard’s Parenthood. "I Love to See You Smile"? What have you done with Randy Newman?

Ragtime is still one of his best. But not his very best. That belongs to the deliriously perfect ¡Three Amigos!, for which Newman cowrote the script with old friend Lorne Michaels and Steve Martin and composed the songs (and supplied the voice of the Singing Bush). Including the immortal "My Little Buttercup." If ever there was a question of Newman’s relationship to Old Hollywood, it’s settled by ¡Three Amigos!

1988: "Masterman and Baby J"

Something funny happened by 1988: Randy Newman became pretty darned famous. After the success of 1983’s Trouble in Paradise, things began to change radically. There are more smiles, and more money. This somewhat rosy 1983 Rolling Stone portrait of Newman has a completely different tone from his two previous profiles in the same magazine — it’s shorter, punchier, and determined to upend the sad-sack image that had been welded to him. (And, in a beautiful little moment, Newman calls the members of the band Toto "the best players of rock & roll ever." How’s that for a sick joke?)

This was a man approaching 40, cutting duets with Paul Simon, hanging with Don Henley, and snapping hard on Elvis Costello: "He’s never immediately impressed me as being the great record maker and songwriter that critics say he is." This is … confidence. Especially for the reluctant writer who never wants to go to the studio. But have a look at him performing "Sail Away" with Billy Joel at Farm Aid, the 1985 benefit mega-festival organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young. The ill-tempered, cross-eyed nerd from the Pacific Palisades had ascended, somehow. By dint of talent, luck, friendship, work ethic, wit, or wonder, Randy Newman was one of the most accepted pop artists at a major American music festival. This kind of acceptance leads to strange choices. Like Land of Dreams.

For an artist with a timeless, classical sound, Land of Dreams is a furious left turn. Nowhere is that more apparent than on "Masterman and Baby J," which is possibly the worst song by a great artist in history. Theoretically an ode to or a parody of a then-nascent but rising genre called rap, Newman employs knockoff J.J. Fad–style production and a rhyming style best described as "dad-core" to create one of the truly baffling songs of a generation. If I hadn’t heard an interview with Newman from 1995 in which he cited the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die as one of the year’s few masterpieces, I might have thought "Masterman" a straight-up racist take on a young, vital (note: not white) art form. But this is Randy Newman. Three songs later, he sang over Mark Knopfler’s gnarled chords, "It’s money that matters." These are all feints to Newman, portals to a point of view. Sometimes they work. Other times, they can’t.

1995: "You’ve Got a Friend in Me," From ‘Toy Story’

In the fall of 1995, Newman was putting the finishing touches on a timeless tale that would thrill audiences young and old for years to come, exploring the concept of friendship, ownership, and the soul. It happened at the greatest heights, with the biggest stakes. I’m talking, of course, about Randy Newman’s Faust. You may have heard of it. It ran for a short time in a theater in La Jolla, California.

A full-scale musical reimagining of Goethe’s tragic tale, with notes of Dante, Newman wrote all the original songs, David Mamet helped him write the book, and for the recording of the show, Newman enlisted a murderers’ row of contributors: James Taylor, Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder on guitar, Benmont Tench on organ, and Jim Keltner on drums, among others. This was an extravaganza. It was aimed at Broadway. It never got beyond Chicago. Then, the toys came calling.

It is accepted, almost universally understood by a generation, that Randy Newman is the poet laureate of America’s greatest animation company. His exuberant scores, marked by a "single" that scratches the childhood’s end sense of sadness, connect several of Pixar’s stories. "You’ve Got a Friend in Me," a simple, uncynical ditty, was the first, the template. It is burned in the brains of parents and kids the world over. In fact, Newman was almost too good at this for-hire work.

For years, Newman was the owner of a rather unfortunate Oscars record: the most nominations (15) without a win. He finally received the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2001, for the Monsters, Inc. song "If I Didn’t Have You," hardly his finest, but it’ll do. Newman is inextricable from Pixar at this point, having composed eight of the company’s 18 films, with Toy Story 4 on the way. He is the sound of millions of childhoods. A long way from "Mama Told Me Not to Come." That he is known, at the end of his career, for the kind of work with which he got his start is a poetic justice.

"I went to Disneyland for something, and my music’s all over," Newman said in 2013. "Most of my songs, what I do, is not like that, and the chance to sort of drift into the middle of the road for once is good for me. It’s good for me artistically to get outside of myself for a bit and do something else. And good for me in terms of doing something that more than 400,000 people might like. It’s been very good."

1999: "I Miss You"

In 1979, here is what Randy Newman said about his then-wife Roswitha:

Time is cruel, but not as cruel as a capture quote. Bad Love, which came out after an 11-year pause in recording, features one of his most perfect, plaintive songs. "I Miss You" is a tribute to Roswitha, his now-ex-wife. It was a curious move for the newly remarried Newman, who wed Gretchen Preece in 1990. Imagine the temerity. "You must be laughing yourself sick up there in Idaho," he sings to Roswitha.

Bad Love is a kind of exorcism, and included among its songs, some of Newman’s finest, is "I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)." It’s about rock stars who still tour and perform well past their sell-by date. It’s scathing and real. I wonder how many of his friends were offended.

"Before I started Bad Love, I wasn’t exactly sure I could do a rock ’n’ roll record at 65, or however old I was," he said in 2003. "But I was satisfied that it was a good record. Maybe my best record. But I don’t know whether I would be the one that’d know it. No one knows when they’re shit. No one taps you on the shoulder and says ‘Stop the fight.’ I think I’d stop if I didn’t think this was something you could get better and better at."

2012: "I’m Dreaming"

To no one’s surprise, Randy Newman was an ardent supporter of Barack Obama. To show that support during his reelection campaign, Newman wrote a song about white guys.

I’m dreaming of a white president
Just like the ones we’ve always had
A real live white man
Who knows the score
How to handle money or start a war
Wouldn’t even have to tell me what we were fighting for
He’d be the right man
If he were a …

Miraculously, no one misunderstood this song.

2017: "Putin"

Last October, the wizened cultural critic Greil Marcus — another great owl who got his start in the ’60s — wrote this about Newman’s latest song, "Putin": "In Randy Newman’s best music he leaves you wondering where you stand, what you think, what you believe, how the world works. This is a postcard that may take years to truly be delivered." Newman’s foresight is Marcus’s, too.

Dark Matter toggles gracefully between the high-toned satirical camp of "Putin" and the soft-hearted "Wandering Boy." So, it’s a Randy Newman album. Long may they reign.

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